Ohio Tombstones Raise Awareness of Veteran Suicides

At first sight, the display on one Ohio man's front lawn may seem like a macabre Halloween decoration.

But Bryan Bowman said he erected 22 tombstones made of Styrofoam outside his home in Canton, Ohio, with an important goal in mind: to promote awareness of the high rate of suicides among military veterans.

The 22 tombstones represent the number of veterans who commit suicide every day, and each of them is inscribed with a different message. One features a telephone number for a crisis hotline for veterans to call when they need help. Another says, "Two times the civilian rate" - referring to the statistic that the veteran suicide rate is twice that among civilians.

Bryan Bowman's front yard sports 22 tombstones that bring awareness to veteran suicides. (Courtesy Bryan Bowman)

Bowman built the tombstones when he was furloughed from his job.

"I actually did it two weeks ago, when I was furloughed because of the government shutdown," he said. "I built those tombstones because I still wanted to bring awareness of what's going on."

Bowman, who does veteran outreach work for Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, first started working with military families and veterans in 2006 as part of the Ohio Army National Guard, where he acted as a liaison for families who had members in the military serving overseas. One particular incident struck close to heart, he said.

"I stood guard at a fallen soldier's funeral, a soldier who had committed suicide, and seeing the effects on his children and his family," Bowman said. "You really do see the after-effects of the suicide on families."

Bowman said the response to the tombstones has been very positive, with families of veterans who committed suicide reading the tombstones and expressing their gratitude.

Tonia Ciccone, of Virginia, who lost her son to suicide last year after he served in Iraq, said she stumbled across the pictures of Bowman's front yard on a website.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh! What a great idea,'" she said. "It's something that the public is going to stop and look at, and I wanted something that would make people look and be educated."

She asked for 22 Styrofoam tombstones from Bowman to promote awareness, and is expecting them in time for Halloween.

For the odd detractor, who may believe that the displays are inappropriate, Bowman said he believes that they are missing the point.

"It's to make people who aren't aware to be aware," he said. "They may not be picking up the paper, they may not be watching. Having the display is actually getting people aware and getting people to talk."